As an extremely resource-intensive process, producing livestock feed has a huge environmental impact — putting a strain on our water reserves, using a massive amount of land, and, of course, releasing pollutants into the environment. A new study, however, shows that farming protein from microbes could provide a sustainable alternative to growing crops for livestock. What’s more, the microbe-based protein could even be added as a supplement to our own food.
The crops that we grow as part of the current food system require plenty of natural resources like water, sunlight, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and land. While much of that produce is directly used to feed humans, another considerable portion is going to become livestock feed.
But as scientists at Göttingen University show through their recent research, microbes could be added to make the whole process a lot more efficient. Using the same kind of resources, microbes could be farmed to produce biomass that can be processed into an edible powder rich in protein and other nutrients. This could be fed to livestock, or made into food for humans, reducing the environmental footprint of growing plant crops.
“We expect that microbial protein will also be beneficial as a supplement to our diets since it provides a high-quality protein source composed of all essential amino acids, as well as vitamins and minerals,” said study author Dorian Leger. “This technology has the potential to support food production while preventing damage to the environment. Current farming methods contribute to polluted ecosystems and depleted water reserves worldwide.”
As part of their study, the team modeled large-scale microbial food production facilities, analyzing energy requirements for each step along the way, and researching different configurations and types of microbes.
The modeled microbe farms would run on green energy and the process would involve capturing CO2 from the air outside and turning it into food for microbes in a bioreactor, using electricity supplied by on-site solar cells. The microbes, in turn, produce the biomass that can be processed into food.
The scientists are careful to note that the protein powder won’t be suitable for every plant crop, but that it could reduce the need (and environmental impact) of things like soy and grains that are grown as livestock feed.
Image source: New Atlas